Islamophobia has reached America. In Austin today, a resolution by members of the Texas State Board of Education to rectify "pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias" in "past Texas Social Studies textbooks" is being put to a vote.
The board determines Texas public school curriculum standards for well over 4 million public school children. There is nothing wrong with honest debate, but there is something wrong with xenophobia, fear-mongering and patently obvious distortions of basic historical truths in the name of education and objectivity. The resolution egregiously takes different quotations out of context from different textbooks and strings them together to create the misleading impression of a pro-Muslim narrative. Above all, there is the appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment by claiming that Middle Easterners desire to "buy into [sic] the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly." As absurd as this allegation is in fact, it nevertheless evokes the conspiratorial idea that foreigners are attempting to brainwash unsuspecting Americans. Substitute the word "Jews" or "Reds" for "Middle Easterners" and you get the idea. The same Texas State Board of Education voted earlier this year to introduce major changes to the social studies curriculum in line with the prejudices of its extremist members: McCarthyism was effectively whitewashed, and the secular democratic basis of the United States was downplayed in favor of a "Judeo-Christian" view of America. Moreover, teachers were instructed not to teach a balanced view of the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinians were the only national group associated with "terrorism" and Islam was the only religion associated with "fundamentalism." Needless to say, it is not Texas educators who are the forefront of this radical revisionism; it is demagogic individuals who are blatantly politicizing education and exploiting a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry and ignorance that is sweeping across America.
For what is occurring in Texas is not limited to Texas. The manufactured controversy about textbooks is part of a sad movement evident across this country: from numerous acts of anti-Muslim vandalism in California, Tennessee and Arizona to the sudden demonstrations against the so-called Ground Zero "mosque" in New York City, to the threats of a hitherto unknown Floridian to burn Qurans, to the polling data that reveals that one in five Americans believe that President Barack Obama is Muslim and that an outright majority could not identify him as a Christian (regardless of how many times he has publicly affirmed his Christian belief). Ironically, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates may have inadvertently reinforced this astonishing data. They appealed to the publicity-seeking Floridian not to burn the Quran because, they insisted, such an act may jeopardize our troops overseas. They flattered his vanity. They should have just said that it is morally reprehensible and unacceptable to burn books, just as Obama should have stuck to his initially strong position on the validity and legality of the construction of the Islamic center in New York. Instead, he backtracked and said that he did not necessarily agree with the construction of the Islamic community center. Obama missed an opportunity to take a firm stand against the forces in America that want to retreat into spiritual isolation and false patriotism — and who would take us all with them.
Fortunately, in Texas and in other parts of this country, saner, more rational American voices are insisting that racism and hatred are not part of either modern American or Christian identity. Even if President Obama has only timidly and cautiously defended fundamental American freedoms, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has forcefully come out for a fundamental principle that has made this country prosper: its secularism and its embrace of difference. Even if the neoconservative New Republic editor Martin Peretz has recently insisted that Muslim-Americans don't deserve First Amendment rights and that Muslim life is "cheap," other Americans such as Jon Stewart have strongly come out in favor of fundamental American freedoms for all Americans. And here in Texas, the shenanigans of extremists on the Texas State Board of Education reflect only one side of America, the side that has previously hated blacks, Catholics, Japanese and Jews and now feels free to hate Arabs and Muslims. But there has always been a more noble side of America that has time and again overcome xenophobia and racism.
Ultimately, this wave of Islamophobia will pass. In the meantime, it will not only further erode America's standing in the Muslim world, but will undermine the fabric of a secular, democratic American society. Like all other hatreds, Islamophobia is not an indictment of real Muslim and Arabs, but of those Americans who have projected onto them all their fears and insecurities. It is also a test of what kind of America we really want to be.
Makdisi is a professor of history at Rice University and is the author of "Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001" (Public Affairs, New York).